Fifty years since its original inception, the African Union (AU) reflects a significantly changed African and global environment. Its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), established in Addis Ababa, on 25 May 1963, was dedicated to combating colonialism, promoting the economic and political future of Africa, defending the sovereignty of African states, and to promoting a better life for African people. But today, for many in Africa, freedom and sovereignty have yet to translate into significantly improved lives.

The OAU struggled with the challenges of decolonization and securing the continent’s emerging states, buffeted all the time by Cold War politics. By contrast the AU operates in a highly globalized environment, grappling with many all too familiar security challenges – and some very modern ones too.

To a degree OAU Summits – and meetings of its various security organs – were more like a reunion gathering of senior military officers than serious intergovernmental efforts to address the complexity of life for ordinary Africans. But the AU, wielding its new broom, tries – with varying degrees of success – to hold its own in the cauldron of global insecurity and economic meltdown. But, both were born of their time, and both played vital roles in advancing Africa’s cause.

Despite the heavy hand of military leadership and apparently permanently installed presidents, the OAU did a great deal to set the future scene for the AU’s work: to promote the peace and security Africa needs to allow its citizens to develop and prosper. The declining years of the Cold War allowed significant African-led developments to take place in the continent’s peace and security architecture.

In May 1991, the Africa Leadership Forum proposed the formation of an African Peace Council. It proposed that the Council should ‘move Africa from the confinement of purely reacting to events, to a capacity of anticipatory and containment measures for its security’. The Council, designed to operate under the OAU framework, was to ‘have discretion to effect a measure of intervention in national security problems of participating member states’. 

Building on this, African heads of state and government issued the 1993 Cairo Declaration on the Establishment of the Central Organ of the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution. The declaration marked a departure from previous OAU approaches to conflict by acknowledging the need to introduce fundamental changes in order to achieve peace and stability through preventing and resolving conflicts. 

This trend away from state-centric, security-led approaches towards a more citizen-centred, development-led approach continued with the signature of the AU Constitutive Act on 11 July 2000 in Lomé, Togo. Departing from the OAU’s early emphasis on absolute sovereignty and non-interference, the Constitutive Act empowers the AU with the right ‘to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances’. In effect the Constitutive Act marked the final step in a move towards formal conflict management structures.  

Following its inauguration July 2002, the AU promulgated a Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council, which articulated a broad framework for implementing preventive diplomacy. This transformation led to the development of the new and wide-ranging Africa Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), marking the end of Africa’s conceptual journey away from an elite club of undemocratic leaders to a much more citizen-centred approach.

Since its establishment, the AU – from a zero base – has mounted peace support missions of variable but generally improving quality in a number of African conflicts. Key interventions have included Burundi, Darfur, the Comoros and Somalia. Developing the capacity to design, mandate and deploy these missions – along with the less visible work the Union has undertaken on peace and security issues on the continent – has been far from easy. And it has often been a highly frustrating experience for Africa’s international partners. But few visitors to Mogadishu now doubt the bravery and skill of African civilians and soldiers working in one of the most complex security environments on earth.

But even as Africa struggles to sustain some relatively classic peace support missions, it is having to get to grips with an increasing range of policy challenges. Understanding the role that security plays in promoting development, and working to promote both in a global security environment characterized by global terrorism, trans-national crime, maritime insecurity and other cross-cutting threats such as climate change, migration and the competition for economic growth, is Africa’s next great challenge.

If the last fifty years were about the continent’s security in a conventional sense, the next fifty years will be about working to promote human security in an increasingly complex environment. Africa should no longer be the place where ideological battles between West and East or secular and radical forces are played out, but the place where Africans finally complete their decolonization – of the land and of the mind – and become full partners in the global political, economic and security environment. 

Re-posted from the Chatham House website: